Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Value and Choice

MIRANDA: O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in't!

PROSPERO: 'Tis new to thee.
--Shakespeare, The Tempest

What follows, coming from one who has been involved online since before the World Wide Web, may seem rather strange. Just remember, though, what I'm talking about is not the value of the Internet but the value of choice.

On NPR's All Things Considered today, “futurist” Syd Mead (known to me for his contribution to the “look” of Blade Runner) predicted microchip implants in humans. He's not particularly comfortable with the idea—nor am I.

Yet just imagine it: Recipients of the implants would have “freedoms” that, today, we can hardly begin to comprehend. They could go into stores and, if their bank balances were healthy, simply pick up items and walk out with them. They could avoid almost all lines, a built-in “EZ Pass” zipping them through every time—even onto airplanes. And more: Like I said, we can't even imagine the advantages of such an implant any more than we really imagined the Web, twenty years ago.

Evangelists for the implants will extol their wonder, urging those without to cross the “implant divide” just as we do today, with the “digital divide.” Programs will be instituted in the schools, bringing children from deprived backgrounds their own microchips. Aid will be given to poor countries, a modified, cheaper, and somewhat restricted version of the implant provided so that people from the “developing world” are not kept on the “outside.”

A “consensus” having evolved among the rich, the educated, and the insiders that the implants, on balance, make human life better, no one will be asking the question as to whether or not everyone really wants to be part of this new web. Well, in the developed countries, opting out will be tolerated. Eccentrics will be tolerated, back-to-the-land folk wishing to live off the grid. But the poor? They need to be pulled in—for their own good.

The idea that the poor, or those living in the poorest countries, should make their own decision about whether to join in this new network would not really be considered. They don't have enough information, anyway. They need these things. Those who have dropped out have made their own decisions, but the poor, never having dropped in, needn't be granted that option.

I don't need to list the dangers that such implants will entail—you can imagine them for yourself quite easily. Probably (like me), you shudder at the very thought. Implants will make freedom contingent on the sufferance of whomever controls the central processing. Our freedom is limited enough, today; with implants, it will become nothing more than illusion.

We neterate folk generally shake our heads in pity at the sight of those who have not yet crossed today's digital divide. We see only that those who don't join us are in danger of being left behind. We don't see the dangers that the Web itself represents, dangers just as real as those implants will present. “We can handle it,” we believe. But can we really? And should we be making the decision about the value of the Web for others, some of whom may want to decide that they would rather not join in.

Or have their children join in.

When we start exporting our belief in the value of our digital world through things like Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program, we've made the decision about joining in for families and communities, not allowing them the choice that really should be their own. Some make the elitist argument that the people in the communities OLPC is designed to help are in no position to make an informed choice on their own—but that's not really true, today, not anywhere in the world. The poor are as able to opt in or out just as intelligently as your cousin who sold everything and moved to northern Arizona “off the grid.”

Though I love the Web, and see it as a ray of hope for the future, I want to entice people into it by interest, not forcing them into it by herding. When we talk of the “digital divide,” we should be discussing ways of making it easy to cross, not developing means of shoving people across. We need to convince people, not push them.

Why? So that, fifteen years from now, I can feel I am making my own decision, my own choice, when faced with getting an implant or not.

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